Sunday, March 12, 2017

Selling Purim to Progressives in the Era of Trump

It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim.  The last time was in 2015, when we were in the midst of the Iran negotiations.

Well, since then the world made a deal with Iran. Trump may say that it's a lousy deal, but he doesn't plan on changing it soon, certainly not to Bibi's liking, And as for the guy who's running Trump, forget about it; Putin is telling Bibi to move on.

That's the good news. We all know the bad news, and it's not about Haman, either.

I wrote a few years ago that the real message of the Scroll of Esther should be that diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

But what do I mean by "the real message".  Every story has multiple messages and morals. The one we choose says as much about what we are about as what the story is about.  So my first point is: Progressives are not forced to cede interpretative rights to anybody. It is possible to focus on the particularism and the tribalism in the story. That may be justified, depending on the context. But we should be wary of the demand for relevance. A friend on FB claims that Barukh Goldstein ruined the holiday for him; another friend said the same for a revenge attack on Jewish civilians. A third said that it reminds him of settlers rejoicing over the death of Palestinian "Amaleks".

When I think of Purim, the first thing I think of is being dressed up as part of a donkey who was  led around by Haman, or was it Mordecai, when I was in elementary school. That leads to me think of Scout Finch dressed up as a ham on that fateful evening she and Jem were attacked by Bob Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird. And then my mind switches back to the festivities at the the Krieger Auditorium of the Chizuk Amunoh Congregation, where they are singing,

Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man,
And Haman was his name, sir!

But I regress....

My point is that the words of the Scroll Esther, or for that matter, Jewish liturgy, are not always to be taken literally; in some instances, they are not to be taken literally at all. Why should I, who believe in the divinity of Torah, be bound by what the text says, a text written millennia ago by people whose morality and worldview I only partially share? Yes, there are lessons to be learned -- read on, progressive skeptic! -- and, yes,  there are passages that make me cringe. But at the end of the day, I have chosen to live my life as a Jew according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and according to my memories, the connections with school, family, shul, etc.

It wouldn't occur to me to abandon a Jewish holiday because of a problematic text. If I did that, I would chuck most of tradition. I would much prefer wrestling with those who take the tradition over to the dark side of particularism, chauvinism, and tribalism. Can we find these things in the Scroll of Esther? Less than in Joshua, more than in Isaiah. But we can also choose to interpret it according to our moral intuitions and reasoning, which is precisely what my cultural heroes, the medieval Jewish philosophers, did.  For some, that is an intellectual cop-out (hey, I teach in a philosophy department!) For me, it's a life choice.

And now, back to Selling Purim to the Progressives 4.0

Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy.  It's not just the Scroll of Esther; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.

Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way.  And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent.  Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality.   I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.

And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by  withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.

Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Israel/Palestine: Relegating the One State/Two State Debate to the Dustbin of History

Following Secretary of State John Kerry's speech on Israel-Palestine, Prof. Corey Robin pointed out the following on Facebook:
There's something so surreal about the state of the Israel/Palestine debate in this country. John Kerry makes a speech today, warning that if we don't act soon, the two-state solution may be in jeopardy. Liberals swoon: Unprecedented! Conservatives seethe: Unprecedented! Meanwhile, on April 18, 2013, John Kerry said: "I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over." In other words, as of April 18, 2015—more than a year and a half ago—the two-state solution was finished. We live in a kabuki republic, where everyone makes these stylized gestures, entirely rhetorical, that mean nothing. And everyone knows they mean nothing. Yet everyone acts as if they mean something.
I would say that we we live in a "Groundhog's Day" republic, except that things have gotten worse since 2015. So I plan to repost things that I wrote in the past if I feel they are still timely. And they probably will always be "timely".

The following post was written in May 2012. The one-state/two-state debate was "weary, stale, and unprofitable" then, and it is even more so now, with the incoming Republican administration. We are, and have been, for some time in a one-state reality. Israel has ruled for three generations over people without their consent and against their will, with a different system of law. Israel today is a democracy in the sense that America was a democracy before African Americans and Native Americans were made citizens and given the vote  -- in short, it is at best a nineteenth-century democracy. The question then is:  How do we focus our energies under the current situation, which shows no signs of changing within my lifetime? This is what I wrote in 2012:

Is the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine still viable? Perhaps it is time to admit, in the spirit of Voltaire, that the two-state solution was never about two states, nor was it a solution, nor could it ever be viable. 

It was not about a Palestinian state, because a state’s fundamental purpose is to provide security and a sense of security to its citizens. But even the most far-reaching of the two-state proposals did not allow the Palestinians to have a strong army. After a century of Zionism, security and the sense of security are what the Palestinians crave most. That is why in poll after poll, what Palestinians on the West Bank oppose most is “an independent Palestinian state that would have no army, but would have a strong security force and would have a multinational force deployed in it to ensure its security and safety.”
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

That there are Palestinian leaders who were compelled, out of weakness and fatigue, to agree to a non-militarized Palestine is irrelevant, as is the very sensible belief that developing countries should not invest heavily in a military. A people that has always relied on the “kindness of strangers” must be able to defend itself. That is valid for the State of Israel, and it is equally valid for the State of Palestine. 

It was not a real solution, because it did not meet the minimum set of reasonable conditions for statehood.  For example, the proposed borders of the state, even after land swaps, would finalize the Judaization of the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area, providing Palestinians with a hole in a Jewish bagel. The settlement blocs would divide the Palestinian state from North to South and the Negev would divide the Palestinian state from  East to West. The other elements of the Clinton proposals or the Geneva Initiative, i.e. security arrangements, refugees, etc.,  all favor the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. 

Advocates of the two-state solution will respond, “Yes, but at least the Palestinians will have a state. Had they accepted the partition plan in 1947, they would have had a larger state without refugees.” Really? Had the Palestinians joined the Zionists in accepting the partition plan in 1947, it is more likely that neither side would have honored it. Even the Zionists, who accepted it, discarded it at the earliest opportunity.  Both sides years later failed to honor the Oslo Accords they signed, and Israel was quick to appeal to security concerns in order to justify territorial gain in 1956 and 1967.

What really determines the security of the Israelis and the Palestinians is, not surprisingly, the balance of power between the peoples. And, under any of the proposed two-state solutions, the Palestinians would be dependent to a large extent on Israel’s largesse. 

For the two-state solution to be a viable option, there must be a fair and equitable division of the land and resources of Israel/Palestine, a division that provides for a symmetry of power and resources between the two peoples, including room for immigrants from their respective  diaspora communities. The current two-state proposals, justified entirely by facts on the ground, and by a desire to solve the Jewish “demographic problem,” distribute land and resources in a grossly inequitable manner. This is a sure recipe for breeding terrorism, vigilantism, and irredentism. Even the accepted US formula for two states: “a secure Israel alongside a viable, contiguous Palestine” is humiliating. If you don’t understand why, just switch the two names.

How about a one-state solution? Or, to be more precise, how about a different “one state” from the current one state ruled by Israel, in which the Palestinians of Israel are excluded from the nation-state, rendering them politically impotent, and in which Palestinian subjects of the West Bank and Gaza, are under Israel’s control?  A more equitable binationalist state may be the solution for the future, but it is presently thwarted by opposing nationalist narratives, hardened by the occupation and by the Israeli policy of "hafrada" (segregation), which fosters mutual ignorance and distrust.

Instead of focusing on impractical political solutions, friends of Israel and Palestine should adopt more fundamental principles. Here are two:

Joint Struggle for Civil Rights and Self-Determination. Recently, several prominent Israelis have called on Israel to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank in a move they termed, “Peace Without Partners.” Yet this return to Zionist unilateralism will achieve neither peace nor the minimum of justice required by both peoples for coexistence. Rather, people of good will from around the globe should become “Partners Without Peace” in a struggle for the civil rights and self-determination of Palestinians (and Israelis, who already have them.) 

Re-education and Fostering Understanding of the Other.  Both sides, as unequal in power as they currently are,  have to be re-educated to understand that at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict are conflicting foundational claims that can no longer be adjudicated. Their goal should be to work gradually towards a reasonably fair compromise between the parties that will allow both peoples security and flourishing. The ultimate goal should not a sanctification of the status quo, including the Israeli regime established in 1948, but rather a willingness to re-think how both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples can have equal opportunities to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

This is a herculean task for more than one generation. But there are no short-cuts.  During the very long night ahead of us, the joint struggle of people from Israel/Palestine and from around the globe should continue to focus on civil and political equality, until more come to realize that the problems between the two sides are foundational. Non-violent tactics that exert pressure on both sides, including boycotts and sanctions,  should be considered and adopted if they will further the aforementioned goals. 

The “We-all-know-what-the-solution-will-look-like–we-just-don’t-know-how-to-get-there” attitude may be comforting to liberal Zionists—but it is just another messianic illusion that allows them to sleep soundly while the oppression and injustice continues. Indeed, the messiah will come before an equitable two-state solution is implemented. And Zionism is not about waiting for the messiah.

Friday, September 16, 2016

How Jewish Students Should Approach the Study of Israel/Palestine on Campus

Dear Readers,

As some have pointed out to me, this blog is virtually defunct. I hope to write something occasionally, and I will post it here. 

The following piece appeared yesterday in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It was cowritten with Prof. Stef Krieger of Hofstra University Law School.

(JTA) -- As university professors, as committed Jews, and as friends, we were puzzled by Arnold Eisen's recent op-ed for JTA, "Jewish pride on campus is under siege. Here’s what your kids can do to fight back."

It is not because we disagree with his positions on Zionism, on Israel and Palestine, or on the place of Israel in one's Jewish identity. No doubt we do disagree with those positions, but that disagreement is le-shem shamayim,"for the sake of heaven."

It is that Chancellor Eisen's advice to young Jews entering college seems so problematic to us.

Dr. Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, writes that "over 300,000" young Jewish college students are liable to have their “Jewish selves” shaken “to the core" on college campuses. One would think that college campuses across the country are hotbeds of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism.

Yet, as has been reported in the media, fights over Israel/Palestine simply don't exist at the vast majority of college campuses in the US, and most students, including Jewish students, are apathetic on Israel. Yes, there have been campuses where events have been reported, especially in the Jewish press. Both sides have cried foul. But exaggerating the extent of the phenomenon spreads alarmism in the Jewish community.

And yet, even if we concede that the problem is as great as Chancellor Eisen's op-ed suggests, we would still disagree with his response to it. We agree that Jewish students should be proud of their heritage, that they should learn about Israel and Judaism. But we don't agree that Jewish students should avoid faculty and students who, for example, refer to Israel as "colonialist" or worse. What if the faculty at their universities teach that Zionism is a settler-colonialist phenomenon? Should students seek to learn about Israel only at Hillel, or by taking Birthright or Federation-sponsored trips? 

Our advice to all students interested in learning about Israel/Palestine is the same advice we give to students in exploring any area of inquiry: Read a lot of scholarship on the subject. Develop a critical and skeptical attitude towards tendentious, false and unsupported claims in books, on the web or social media, by teachers, and yes, by your religious leaders, parents, and friends. This intellectual process may make some students question, and even weaken, their attachment to the State of Israel, or draw them closer to the struggle for Palestinian rights. Or it may or may not strengthen their commitment to Israel. Whatever the outcome, students should engage in this process.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

On Anti-Palestinianism and Anti-Semitism

By “anti-Palestinianism” I understand prejudice against Palestinian Arabs based on perceived negative qualities of Palestinian cultural or natural identity. Views such as “Palestinian Arab culture is a culture of death and martyrdom,” “Palestinian Arabs hate Jews because of incitement,” “Palestinian Arab labor is inferior” are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

By “anti-Semitism,” I understand prejudice against Jews based on perceived negative qualities of Jewish cultural, natural, or religious identity. Opinions such as, “Jews love only money,” “There is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against gentiles,” “Jews are loud, noisy, and uncouth,” etc. are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are also inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

What I would like to discuss here is how the current vogue of identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinianist, i.e., the product of bigotry towards Palestinians. I won’t bother to “disprove” the identification itself, any more than I would bother to “disprove” anti-Semitic claims. I applaud those who have the stomach for such “disproofs”; I don’t.

“Anti-Palestinianism” and “anti-Semitism” should be examined in light of the broader phenomenon of group prejudice. Regrettably, they often are not. Anti-Semitism is considered a serious moral failing in Western society today, whereas anti-Palestinianism is not even recognized as a phenomenon to be studied. The reason for this has a lot to do with the prominence accorded to anti-Semitism in Western consciousness for well-known historical reasons. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, saw a nation-state of the Jews to be the solution to anti-Semitism. The Holocaust reinforced that view for many.

The so-called “New Anti-Semitism” was born of the increasing identification, shared by some Zionists and anti-Semites, of Israelism and Judaism. Although Zionism as a movement of national revival had many different aspects (some Zionists actively opposed the creation of a Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state), the particular form that Zionism took in the newly created laws and institutions of the state of Israel became identified with Zionism tout court. For Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, to be a complete Jew was to be a Zionist, and to be a complete Zionist was to be a citizen of the State of Israel, where “statism” (mamlakhtiyyut) was a supreme value. His view was resisted by many other Jews, Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists, even after the creation of the state in 1948 (although a version of it  has been embraced by latter-day Zionist ideologues like the writer, A. B. Yehoshua). But after Israel’s capture in 1967 of territories of historical significance for Jews, the growing acceptance of ethnic diversity in western societies, and the increasing prominence according to the Holocaust in popular culture, Israel became an important component in the identity for many Jews.

Especially for the generation of 1967, to oppose Zionism was in effect to oppose the self-determination of the Jewish people, which was to imply that Jews as a people have less rights to self-determination than other peoples. This purported “singling out” of the Jews was seen by some to motivated by, or identical with, anti-Semitism. And because anti-Semitism, like racism, had become a term of moral opprobrium in modern society, “anti-Semite” was applied to those who wished replace the State of Israel with another political system, for whatever motivation, even if they thought it better for the Jews.

Today, if one rejects the claims of Jews to a state of their own in Palestine, i.e., if one rejects statist Zionism, one is considered by these people to be at best an unwitting or inadvertent anti-Semite. The same is true if one wishes to replace the Zionist state with a state that is predominantly a civic one – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. The same is true if one thinks that founding the State of Israel in the way it was founded was bad for Jews and for Arabs.

It also follows that if one is a Palestinian and shares any of the aforementioned beliefs, one is, at best, an unwitting anti-Semite. And that conclusion is anti-Palestinianist because it says that Palestinians can have no other motive for opposing a Jewish state than implacable hatred of the Jews. And if that conclusion seems too bizarre even for those who are wont to find “anti-Semites” everywhere, it is less so when applied to Palestinian sympathizers. “After all ,why should a British Labourite be sympathetic to anti-Zionism if she is not herself related to a Palestinian – unless that sympathy is, perhaps, unconsciously, tinged by anti-Semitism.” But aside from trivializing anti-Semitism, that conclusion is also anti-Palestinianist – because it implies that the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy, either because their suffering has not been so great, or, worse, they have brought it upon themselves. And because the accusation of “anti-Semitism” carries with it a particular tone of moral opprobrium following the Holocaust, the accusation is hurtful in ways that “anti-Zionism” or “anti-Israelism” are not. (Cf. the use of the term “apartheid” rather than “separation” or “segregation” as a term of moral opprobrium.)

My claim that the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Palestinianist canard does not exclude the possibility that there will be anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, or who, more likely, use anti-Semitic tropes. Negative stereotypes of Jews have been found among some anti-Zionists, and they should and have been condemned. Ditto for the employment of anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes by some Zionists. Internalizing the negative images of Jews of the anti-Semites, some Zionists “negated the diaspora” and looked forward to a new, “muscular” Jew who would replace the weak, effeminate, cunning Jew of the diaspora -- when the Jews have their own state. Zionist-motivated anti-Semitism is alive and well every time a diaspora Jew is criticized for “kowtowing to the goyim,” or called a “Jewboy” (yehudon, in Hebrew) by a rightwing Israeli politician.

To talk of “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” without mentioning anti-Semitic tropes within Zionism is, once again, to employ the emotive power of the “anti-Semitism” accusation to delegitimize critics of the Jewish state. The speaker may avoid identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but the implied guilt by association, though a lesser form of bigotry, is bigotry, nonetheless. And when one singles out anti-Semitism for moral opprobrium without even acknowledging anti-Palestinianism, one loses the moral high ground and simply parrots partisan polemic.

All bigotry should be condemned, whether the target group is powerful or weak. But there should be special concern for the consequences of bigotry aimed at the weak, since those consequences will be more dire. Anti-Semitism can never be justified, and it should be called out when found. And the pro-Palestinian movement has done that. But insufficient sensitivity to anti-Palestinianism is, under present circumstances, a greater sin for those who care about the real consequences of bias and bigotry.

To be sure, those who care for the well-being and equal rights of the people living in Israel/Palestine will not agree on how to achieve those rights. One can oppose many forms of political resolutions without being bigoted, and one can oppose tactics as inappropriate or counter-productive without bias or prejudice. Particular tacics endorsed by  the Palestinian National Boycott committee have been criticized. But this opposition should be based on argument,  not on bigoted insensitivity, especially when directed against the weak and vulnerable. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are generally legitimate tactics, the wisdom of which can be debated. But delegitimizing or demonizing, much less criminalizing, the BDS movement is, in most cases, the product of anti-Palestinianist bias and should be rejected by decent people on all sides.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Need for a Center Left Political Alternative in Israel

Since the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, if not earlier, there has been no center left in Israel. Of course, there has been something referred to as “center left” but that was only relative to the so-called right of the Likud, Kadima, Shinui, Yesh Atid, and defunct parties whose name I forget. Former prime minister, Ehud Barak managed almost single-handedly  to destroy the center left, which had supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, and which  had viewed moderate Israelis and Palestinians as partners for peace against the extremists of both sides. With Barak, even before the total collapse of the peace process, the motivation for a settlement with the Palestinians was to separate the populations, to keep the West Bank and Gaza under direct security and indirect economic control of Israel, and to grant limited autonomy to Palestinians. Barak’s views differed little from  Netanyahu, which explains in part  his ability to serve as Defense Minister in Netanyahu’s government.

The Barak Doctrine was simple: separation from the Palestinians (“We are here; they are there”); Israeli  security and economic control over the West Bank and Gaza; limited Palestinian autonomy with Israel’s security being contracted out, in part,  to the Palestinian Authority. Israel would help facilitate, or at least would not stand in the way, of Palestinian economic growth in areas that did not threaten the Israeli economy.  The difference, perhaps, between Barak and Netanyahu was the extent of expansion into the West Bank they thought possible. Both were willing to allow  settlements even outside the settlement blocs to grow without taking steps to curb them.

The Barak Doctrine should now be known as the Herzog Doctrine; in fact, I cannot see any difference between them. From  Barak’s Labor Party to Herzog’s Zionist Union, there has been a consistent vision of the status quo and the endgame; the party’s criticisms against the right have generally been more of style than of substance. Herzog has often criticized Netanyahu for alienating Israel’s allies, and for his relying on the extreme right wing.  Instead of presenting the Zionist Camp as an ideological alternative to the Likud and the other right wing parties, he has presented himself as a more effective political leader than Bibi. He will do what Bibi would like to do, only  better – because he will do it with the understanding of the US and Europe.

It is the failure of the Zionist Camp to offer a  center left alternative that has led people like Haaretz’s owner, Amos Schocken, to suggest that only international intervention will preserve the state of Israel.  Were there to be a center left, even were it to be in the opposition, Schocken would not have written his powerful piece.

So one should not blame the leftwing activists,  intellectuals, and journalists who call for international intervention, or who display Israel’s human rights abuses for all the world to see, for the demise of Israel’s center left. That is getting the story backwards. Were the Zionist Camp to offer a party around which people could rally – not because the party doesn’t like Bibi and the rightwing, but because it doesn’t  like his vision and his policies – then there would be an address for political action within Israel. Even the so-called extreme left would support it, as it supported Rabin in the early stages of Oslo.

Can there be a center left political alternative in Israel? Some people think that it is not possible. I am not sure, but I don’t think giving up on it  is a good idea.  For the Palestinians to achieve even partial liberty, for the current phase of the Occupation to end, there must be a political constituency in Israel that articulates a different vision from that of the Likud and its various imitator policies.

Personally, I cannot accept the ideology of even a reformed, progressive, Zionist Left. But I can recognize its practical importance in the evolution of Israeli thinking towards the Palestinians. So any steps that are taken to create a real ideological and political alternative to the anti-Palestinian Center should have the support not only of the Zionist Left, but of all people who want justice for the Palestinians. 

This is not a time for ideological purity.  There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation, and bringing justice and security to the Palestinian people. For this to happen, there must be at least three things: a strong Palestinian movement;  a strong Israeli political movement advocating for change; and international incentives and pressure, including boycotts and sanctions.  These three groups will have different aims, and they certainly will not be coordinated.  For example, the Israeli political movement cannot and should not call for international intervention. But it has the obligation of warning  the Israeli public of that intervention. 

There has to be an Israeli political movement that is truly center left.  I don’t know how or whether that will come about. But I can tell you right now, I will support it, despite any skepticism I may have.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

BDS is Not Bellatrix, Dumbledore or Snape. Maybe It’s Hermione

J. K . Rowling has signed a statement against the cultural boycott of Israel, and has called instead for cultural engagement.  Some of her Palestinian fans have objected, pointing to Harry Potters’ fight against Voldemort and  the Death Eaters. In her reply she asks her readers to consider Dumbledore’s attempt to engage with Snape, then a Death Eater.

As a fan of the Potter series who has expressed solidarity with the global BDS movement (though not all elements of it equally),  I can only roll my eyes at both sides.

I understand why J. K. Rowling thinks that Palestinians supporters of BDS are motivated by the righteous anger and desire for revenge that motivates Harry for much of the series, and that one answer to that anger is to seek out like-minded allies on the other side, to engage, to dialogue, to build projects together.

I understand why Palestinian fans of Harry  think that Israel is run by Death Eaters, its justice  administered by the likes of anti-muggle ideologues like Dolores Umbridge, or mudblood persecutors  like Bellatrix Lestrange.

What I don’t understand is how both parties can so misunderstand the BDS movement, at its core a human rights movement, which calls upon the State of Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands, give full equality to its citizens, and promote  the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland in accordance with UN Resolution 194.

With the likes of Voldemort and Lestrange there can only be war, and justice can be served only by their total defeat. I have no doubt that many Palestinians and their supporters would like nothing less than their oppressors being scattered over the face of the earth. I understand the human desire to punish and avenge.

But that’s not what the BDS movement is about, not at least in its official statements. (What individuals think is not my concern.)  The movement is about applying pressure to Israel to change its policies. Israel is singled out by Palestinians and their supporters because their rights are singled out by Israel for violation.

J. K. Rowling doesn’t understand this. She confuses boycotting with anti-normalization, and she thinks that Israeli artists are boycotted because they are Israeli.  (They are  not).  The cultural boycott does not target Israelis, and allows great latitude for cultural engagement. What it targets is institutions that represent and are complicit with state policies.  Although Daniel Barenboim’s Divan orchestra is now under the boycott, PACBI writes,

PACBI realizes that projects that go against the boycott cannot all be put into one basket or regarded as being equally objectionable. Given the limitations of the boycott movement’s human capacity, prioritizing boycott targets becomes crucial. Such prioritization is a factor of multiple, evolving considerations, moral and pragmatic, that take into account, among other things, the degree of complicity of each project and its expected harm to the overall struggle for Palestinian rights and against Israel’s impunity. While clearly in violation of the boycott, WEDO is not regarded, comparatively speaking, as among the most objectionable projects.

I would add that it is one of the least objectionable projects, especially since Barenboim is persona non grata for many Israelis. But as I said, there can be room for disagreement.

To be sure, boycott, sanctions, and divestment, impact individuals. Institutions are composed of individuals. Labor strikes hurt innocent people.  One can support BDS without being in favor of crippling sanctions, as in the case of Iraq and Iran. And one can always argue about the efficacy and propriety of certain tactics.

Boycotts do not rule out engagement with like-minded people, or even certain collaborations. And, again, there can be disagreement on what projects are covered.

If one doesn’t support some or all aspects of boycotts on principle, but recognizes the importance of standing fast with the oppressed and downtrodden, may I suggest that silence is preferable to signing statements that give succor to the oppressors. For every J. K. Rowling who supports cultural engagement with Israelis, there are many who agree with her but don’t sign initiatives of the sort she did.

When Ron was being stupid and hurtful, Hermione would tell him so, or refuse to speak with him. He would be resentful until he came to his senses.

Perhaps that’s a better model. Or perhaps we should leave Harry Potter out of this.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Why Boycotting Matisyahu is Reasonable, Even if You Don’t Agree with It

Update: Apparently, the Spanish festival has recently apologized and reinvited Matisyahu. The festival organizers' should not be confused with the BDS-País-Valencià, which initiated the action.  The latter will no doubt continue to call for a boycott of the concert and ask other reggae acts to cancel their participation.

The Rototom festival organizers should be criticized twice: for requiring Matisyahu to sign a pledge supporting a Palestinian state (which has nothing to do with the BDS movement or with BDS-País-Valencià, which opposed the action) and for caving into pressure from groups to reinstate. Well, I don't envy them since they were hit from both sides.

But the BDS-País-Valencià should not be criticized for calling for a boycott against an artist who has publically defended Israeli war crimes, or if that is too strong, actions that are considered war crimes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. For links see below. And to consider their calls "anti-Semitic" is bigoted and offensive, and I don't care where you stand on the BDS spectrum.  

I find it extraordinary that those who sense "anti-Semitism" behind criticism of Israel's human rights abuse are willing to cut slack for Matisyahu on the grounds that his statements were "taken out of context", "immediately dismissed as apolitical", etc. If this is not hypocritical, I don't know what is.

Reasonable people can disagree with BDS-Pais-Valencià's call to boycott Matisyahu, as I said in the post below. But reasonable and decent people can agree. An artist doesn't get a pass for defending human rights violations. An American Jews doesn't get a pass for defending Israel's human rights violations.

An internationally renown reggae artist goes  on record supporting the IDF’s response in the Mava  Marmara fiasco. At the height of the Gaza Operation last summer, he posts on his Facebook page a one-sided defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza by hasbarita Sara Merson, igniting a firestorm of comments for and against.  He expresses love of performing in Israel, and he headlines a“"pro-Zionist festival”. He claims that as far as he knows, “there never was a country named Palestine.”
A Spanish BDS group protests the artist’s  invitation to appear at the progressive Rototom concert whose theme is Peace. At the same time they protest the Israel reggae duo Congo Beats the Drum. The organizers push back against the BDS group’s demand to the artist to clarify whether he supports the three goals of the BDS movement. Instead he is asked whether he supports a Palestinian state (Let us recall that Bibi Netanyahu is on record supporting a Palestinian state.)  The artist refuses both the demands of the BDS group and the organizers’ request to clarify his position on a Palestinian state.
When accused of anti-Semitism by the organizers, the Spanish BDS group writes the following:
The BDS movement is by no means against the Jewish people, in fact there are numerous Jewish and Jews around the world who are part of this movement. For example, the (IJAN its acronym in English), the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Boycott from Within, or other individual Jewish people. International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network A year ago, many Jewish people Holocaust survivors called the "total boycott" of Israel and Gaza bombing related summer with the word "genocide".Similarly, the BDS movement in the Spanish state (through its main coordinator, the RESCOP) consists of non-Jewish people and Jewish people, and recently has campaigned against fascism and anti-Judaism. Finally, it is worth noting that other world notables both Jewish and non-Jewish personalities have joined the BDS and / or have canceled their participation in events in Israel.
So does the Matisyahu cancellation prove that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic? If being Jewish means being automatically pro-Israel, pro IDF,and pro-Operation Protective Edge, I suppose it does. But that’s not how I understand anti-Semitism.
When Israelis cultural groups are boycotted simply because they come from Israel, regardless of their political views, BDS is attacked for being anti-Semitic. When pro-Israel artists are boycotted because of their views, BDS is anti-Semitic.
So why does the Matisyahu cancellation bother liberal Jews who support Palestinian rights?  Well, as liberals, they think that an artist should be free to think whatever he likes (unless, maybe, he is a glatt kosher fascist like the Israeli singer Ariel Zilber, who is routinely attacked by liberal Israelis). If somebody makes a political statement, it is his or her right, but that doesn’t mean to say that others don’t have a right to protest.
But  Matisyahu is not Ariel Zilber. He is just your average, everyday, pro-Israel musician who is clueless about politics and rarely speaks on it. So I can understand why many liberal Zionists may have qualms about this one. Still, they should view as reasonable the actions of pro-Palestinian groups, who are offended by his public defense of Israel have a right to point to his statements and to call for a boycott. 
Liberal Zionists tolerate uncritical Israel supporters because they are family. But we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t. To be sure, I doubt this Spanish BDS group would have much sympathy for anybody who didn’t endorse the three goals of the BDS movement. But that is their right. Had Matisyahu, who has made political statements in the past in favor of Israel, endorsed a Palestinian state, or justice for the Palestinians, he would not have been cancelled, even with the protest of the Spanish BDS group. But an artist who has politicized his work should not be surprised if he is called out on it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The “High Level International Military Group” on Operation Protective Edge

These are sad days for Israel/Palestine, but today I got a kick out of a story that I thought at first was produced by the satirical mag, the Onion.

It seems that an all male group of generals, security chiefs, and right wing politicians, calling itself the “High Level International Military Group,” has produced a report that not only exonerates Israel of war crimes but praises it for its humanitarian efforts! The timing is viewed as as preemptive assault on the Human Rights Council report due out next week.  Here is how the AP reported the release

In a boost to the Israeli case, the High Level International Military Group, made up of 11 former chiefs of staff, generals and other senior American and European officials who conducted a fact-finding mission, came to similar conclusions. It said: “None of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the (Israeli military) last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances.”

It would have been nice had the AP reporter also written a few things about the “High Level International Military Group”. Like, for example, how “the project was sponsored by the Friends of Israel Initiative” and that most of the participants are on record as supporting the IDF before 2014. With the exception of Pierre Richard Prosper, not a single one of them has any experience in human rights. Many of them are experienced warriors, though.

It will be recalled that William Chabas, “the world expert on the law of genocide and international law” resigned from the HRC Commission on the Gaza Op because he had once taken a $1300 fee from the PLO for legal advice. So one would expect that the Friends of Israel Initiative would bend over backwards to get impartial people to give the IDF a clean bill of goods. Wouldn’t that look better? I mean, maybe these guys are biased?

So here are some parts of the biographies of the High Level International Military Group left out by the Friends of Israel initiative.

Giulio Terzi – “former Foreign Minister of Italy,” and founding member of the Friends of Israel.

General Klaus Naumann – former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. As described by former military correspondant for Haaretz, Zev Schiff, in 2002, Gen. Naumann “is known as a friend of Israel and of the Israel Defense Forces.

General Vincenzo Camporini – former Chief of the Defense Staff of Italy,

Admiral Jose Maria Teran – former Chief of the Joint Staff of Spain.

Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper – former US State Department Ambassador at Large for war crimes issues. Served under George W. Bush and recently as a Mitt Romney surrogate.  A speaker against “Lawfare”, Haaretz wrote about him in 2002, “"The United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, is Israel's main ally in its battle against being transformed from accuser into accused.”

Mr Rafael Bardaji – former National Security Adviser for the Spanish government and member of the Friends of Israel Initiative.

Lieutenant General David A Deptula – former Standing Joint Force Air Component Commander, United States Pacific Command and senior advisor to the Gemunder Center at the rightwing Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (Jinsa)

Major General Jim Molan – former Chief of Operations, Headquarters Multi National Force, Iraq and Commander of the Australian Defence College and defender of Israel in Cast Lead against the Goldstone report.

Colonel Eduardo Ramirez – Member of Colombian Congress and former Chief of Security, Colombia.

Colonel Vincent Alcazar – former senior United States Air Force officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Colonel Richard Kemp – former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, defender of Israel after Cast Lead, and a member of the Friends of Israel initiative and defender of Israel in Cast Lead against the Goldstone report.

I want to make clear that I do not wish to cast aspersions on the gentlemen above, or their expertise in their fields.  For whatever reason they are entitled to be loyal supporters of militaries and Israel.

But if this ad hoc group of military brass, diplomats, politicians is the best Bibi can do, all I can say is 

“Bring back Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler!” 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Anti-Israel Blacklist or Human Rights Protest? How the Media Misreported a Teacher Union’s Request

A story reported last week by Inside Higher Education read like a McCarthyist nightmare:  A Brazilian university administrator urgently requested information on Israeli students and professors  in order to comply with a request from “pro-Palestinian groups”.

According to the story, reported also by  YNET, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Jewish Forward,  the administrator, Vice-Rector Prof. Jose Fernando Schlosser, was accused of anti-Semitism and an investigation opened against him. The university, the Federal University of Santa Maria (FUSM) claimed under the law, it was required to provide the information  in accordance with the 2011 Law on the Access to Information.

Reporting for Inside Higher Education, respected editor and journalist Scott Jaschik writes:
The idea that such information might be released to those [“pro-Palestinian”] groups has raised alarm in Israel and among Jewish groups in Brazil. Many have expressed fears that Israelis at the university could be harassed, and questioned why a university should be releasing such information about its foreign students.
Why indeed?  Had anybody  taken five minutes with Google and Google Translator (which led me to  Brazilian peace activist, Moara Crivelente), the readers would have received  a somewhat different story:

On August 28 2014, following Israel’s massive shelling of Gaza in which heavy civilians losses and damage were sustained, and amidst  ongoing protests against  FUSM’s  involvement with Israeli firm Elbit’s Brazilian subsidiary AEL Systems (involvement allegedly having to do with military microsatellite and space weapon research), a freedom of information request was made of the university’s president by three groups: the Trade Union Section of FUSM Teachers, the Central Directory of Students, and  the Association of FUSM Employees (misidentified as “Palestinian” or “pro-Palestinian” organizations in the media reporting.)  To their representatives’ signatures were affixed signatures of members of the Santa Maria Committee for Palestinian Solidarity.

The request, available here, begins with considerations that led to  the request, including the military cooperative research,  and the recent Gaza operation. The request then contains the following five sections:
1) Does the FUSM have any participation in the Space Hub in [the Federal state of] Rio Grande do Sul? If so, in what way? What document underlies this relationship?

2) Does FUSM have any relationship with juridical Israeli persons (private companies, public entities, NGOs, etc.?), including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

3) Is there any action (Plan, Program, Project, Covenant or Agreement of Cooperation, Protocol of Intentions, etc.) registered and/or in effect with juridical Israeli persons, including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through the cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

4) Are there, at the moment, or is there a prospect for the UFSM to accept Israeli students/professors/authorities/professionals? If so, through whose invitation/proposal?

5) Is UFSM, or will it be, beneficiary of any material or human resource of Israeli origin, even if indirectly, that is, through the relationships referred to at items 2 and 3 retro?
There is no request here for names of Israeli students and teachers but whether Israeli students will be accepted in the university, and if so, in what departments. Even in the request sent out by the vice-provost, there was no request for names of Israelis students and teachers. The information requested was not about the students at all but about the programs accepting them.

And the Teacher’s Union response, available here, makes clear its intentions, which was “to clarify press reports that the UFSM participated in  scientific cooperation agreements with companies that provide weapons and technologies to the Israeli war machine”

Was the request itself justifiable? My opinion is the request, despite justifiable intentions, was  carelessly,  and much too sweepingly, worded. The organizations wanted to know whether there were Israeli students and professors invited to study in areas with implications for the military,  and were there research agreements in areas with military-use implications.  That is why they asked “at whose invitation or proposal” the Israelis were invited. But the intention should have been made clearer.

But is even that justifiable? Let us recall that in the US, Iranian students are prohibited from studying the following fields: “petroleum engineering; petroleum management; nuclear science; nuclear engineering; or, a related field” and “Individuals seeking to study in other fields, such as business, management or computer science, but who intend to use these skills in Iran's oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors, are also ineligible for visas.”  Clearly the petitioners were concerned, rightly or wrongly, with FUSM’s complicity with military-industrial complex.

But a poorly-worded request for information is not the same as creating a blacklist of opponents (for that idea see a pro-Israel website here.) Nobody asked for names of Israelis, and nobody was interested in harassing or harming Israeli students or professors.

But most sadly – nobody asked for the petitioners’ side of the story.

Inside Higher Education should publish a follow-up.

(Acknowledgment: This post could not have been written without the generous help of Moara Crivelente)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and the “Anti-Semitism” Charge

Many people have different positions on the wisdom, and even the legitimacy, of tactics involving boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) directed against alleged human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine. But all should condemn recent attempts in some quarters to brand these tactics as “anti-Semitic”. BDS is neither motivated by anti-Semitism, nor it is it, in effect, anti-Semitic. The “anti-Semitism” charge against BDS is false, intellectually lazy, and morally repugnant.

The “Anti-Semitism” Charge against BDS is False. Anti-Semitism has been defined as “a prejudice against, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic, religious, or racial group”. Anti-Semitism is commonly considered a form of racism, in its broadest sense. By contrast, the BDS movement is a movement initiated by Palestinian civil society and its supporters to promote and defend the human, civil, and political rights of the Palestinian people living in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian diaspora, most notably the rights of liberty, equality, and self-determination. The movement comprises people of different creeds and nationalities, including Israelis and Jews, and explicitly condemns all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. The BDS movement is in its essence a human rights movement, grounding its call on international human rights law, conventions, and decisions. It not only explicitly opposes anti-Semitism; it is diametrically opposed to it.

The “Anti-Semitism” Charge against BDS is Intellectually Lazy. One of the arguments for BDS’s alleged anti-Semitism is that in singling out Israel for moral opprobrium, the movement reveals its true motivation, which is hatred of the Jewish state, ergo Jews. This is the tired argument of all those who wish to deflect attention away from their own human rights violations. Similar arguments were made by South Africa in response to calls for divestment during the apartheid era; by the Soviet Union, in response to calls for sanctions during the struggle for Soviet Jewish rights; by some southern US states, in response to calls for integration during the civil rights movement. To expect of Palestinians and their supporters that they will devote more of their energies to human rights abuses that little concern them is morally unreasonable. It is also hypocritical, in so far as those who criticize the BDS movement usually devote more of their own energies to supporting Israel than to fighting human rights violations elsewhere in the world. By their example they undermine their own argument.

Another argument is that the global BDS movement, in so far as it deals not only with Palestinian human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, but also calls for full equality for Israeli’s Palestinian citizens and recognition of the Palestinian right of return, wishes to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel. And since the State of Israel understands itself as the expression of Jewish self-determination, the BDS movement is, in effect, if not by design, opposed to Jewish self-determination, ergo anti-Semitic. Yet this argument rest on a string of questionable assumptions. It concedes, unnecessarily, that the State of Israel can only survive if it foundationally discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens, or defies international recognition of the refugees’ right of return. It confuses criticism of Israel on these points with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, all of which are distinct positions.

As for the “delegitimization” charge: Israel is a member of the United Nations and recognized by many countries. Its political legitimacy is no more nor less than that of the United States, Germany, Russia, North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. But its moral legitimacy, like that of all states, rests on its adherence to human rights standards expected of all states.

The final argument is that the BDS movement, while itself not anti-Semitic, has attracted supporters who are either motivated by anti-Semitism, or who use anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes. But even conceding this point, similar things are true of the pro-Israel movement, which has attracted supporters who are Islamophobes, anti-Palestinianist, Nakba deniers, and advocates of Jewish spiritual and metaphysical superiority. Bigotry is, unfortunately, a common vice, and its manifestations are to be condemned. But just as opponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Palestinian bigots, so the proponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Israeli bigots, much less anti-Semitic.

The “Anti-Semitism“ Charge against BDS is Morally Repugnant. Anti-Semitism, like racism, is one our era’s “mortal sins”. To accuse a movement of anti-Semitism is not only to criticize or delegitimize it; it is to tar it as immoral. The BDS movement has been embraced, in part or in whole, by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people and its leadership. To label as “anti-Semitic” Palestinians and their supporters who are fighting for their rights using tried and true non-violent tactics is morally repugnant and itself represents a sort of bigotry. Moreover, in supporting the charge with insufficient evidence and sloppy arguments, one not only fails to establish one’s point; one trivializes and cheapens genuine anti-Semitism.

In short, the “anti-Semitism” charge against BDS is not only offensive to Palestinians; it is offensive to all those who reject anti-Semitism.

It should have no place in the ongoing, legitimate debate over BDS.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Two States in One Homeland Initiative–Thanks but No Thanks

I was asked last summer by a friend what was my reaction to the Two States in  One Homeland initiative. My short answer was that it had some positive elements but it read like a very liberal Zionist document. I went through the proposal and sent the friend comments, mostly my reservations.  Since the initiative may or may not have a conference next week – people are dropping out like flies – I will repeat what I wrote my friend. Here are my comments.

1. The implicit acceptance of Zionism by Palestinians. I cannot see many Palestinians accepting the notion that Jews have an attachment to the land by “profound historical, religious, and cultural ties,” that in any way provides them with a claim or even an interest in it being a homeland, certainly not in the way that this is expressed. I note with satisfaction the use of the weak term “ties”. But, frankly, this seems to be a (weak) recognition of the legitimacy of Zionism, and I don’t think it is reasonable to expect most Palestinians to accept this, and they should not be considered unreasonable or intolerant for not doing so. Of course, if some wish to do so, fine but that’s not a great basis for shared dialogue. I think it is perfectly reasonable for Palestinians to say, “We understand that the longing for residence in “Eretz Yisrael” has played different roles in the Jewish religious tradition over the centuries, and that traditional Judaism teaches that “Eretz Yisrael”  is the patrimony of the Jewish people, that Jerusalem is holy to the Jews, that the Temple was built on the Haram as-Sharif,“ etc. But that is in no way an admission of the truth, much less legitimacy, of any of these claims.  Again, if some Palestinians want to do so, that’s their business.

2. The parity between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. There is no parity in the eyes of most Palestinians;  there is certainly no parity between the Zionists and the Palestinians. In  the document there is no mention of Zionist as a settler colonialism, of the forced displacement of the majority of the Palestinians and the importing of Westerners with the national consciousness (of some) that they are returning to their imagined homeland.  Perhaps it is best not to go down that road, but then there is no reason to accept the liberal Zionist narrative of “two peoples struggling over one land” – unless the two peoples are the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, not the Jewish and Palestinians peoples. I could see using “Israeli Jews” rather than “Jews” in many places in the document; that would be less objectionable.

3. Immigration and Naturalization:  Here the proposal is intriguing, more so than I thought at first reading. It may be possible to implement the right of return based on the acceptance of 900,000 Palestinian refugees and their families, and the acceptance of proportional number of permanent residents.  For instance, according to the proposals, Palestinian refugees can be naturalized in Palestine and then can reside in Israel, as permanent residents, and with compensation by Israel.  Let us assume that there are around 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, and around 600,000 Israeli Jews living over the green line (not counting the Golan Heights). That’s about 15%.  That means up to 900,000 Palestinians (including refugees) can live as permanent residents within the State of Israel, presumably on lands close to their native landscapes, or other strategic parts. For example, several hundred thousand Palestinians can be settled on lands to the West of Jerusalem, in what are now JNF forests, thus providing a demographic balance to the West of Israeli Jewish settlement to the North, South, and East of Jerusalem over the green line. But all this is only after the right of return is recognized by Israel and refugees are given the choice of returning to their native landscapes and families, as guaranteed by international law.

4. Jerusalem. No mention is made here about sovereignty. Who does Jerusalem belong to? To God? To the world?

5. Security

I take it, then, that there will be two modern armies of more or less equal capacity, or at least acting in coordination. Does this mean decreasing the size and power of the IDF? Am I right here? If so, this is a vast  improvement to the Geneva Initiative, where the Palestinians had to farm out their security to a multi-national force.

6. Joint Institutions

Nothing to add; all good ideas.

7. Palestinians with Israeli citizenships.

Here again the parity breaks down and betrays the liberal Zionist  spirit of the document.  Why give a Jewish minority within Palestine rights as a national minority, and not give, say, the Christian minority those same rights? Because Jews are members of a nation and not a religion? But that’s the view of Zionism! Moreover, why would Palestine agree to naturalize any Jews as part of a national minority, especially those with outspoken irredentist aims who are in their land illegally? There are over a half-million Palestinian Israeli citizens and their numbers have been artificially kept at 20% in order to preserve a Jewish state that is democratic, what I call ethnic cleansing in the “service” of democracy. Will they have rights as a national minority? Where is the parity because settling Jews illegally in occupied territory and resettling Palestinians legally, according to their legal and recognized rights?

None of the above would be necessary if Israel and Palestine were to become states of all their citizens, in which all disadvantaged minorities would expect affirmative action to improve their representation in society, etc.  Of course, as predominantly Jewish, Israel’s culture, language, calendar, would be predominantly Jewish, a “Jewish America”, as it were. But as I oppose the State of Israel that is an ethnocracy with some trappings of democracy, that would be alleviated, to be sure, by granting minority ethnic rights, so I oppose the State of Palestine as an ethnocracy with some trappings of democracy. As the document says, one does not correct injustice with injustice.

8. Reparations

I do believe that reparations should be paid both individually and collectively to Arabs and Jewish refugees  from 48 and 67, not just for loss of property, but for much more. However, realistically speaking, close to a 100% of this burden will be placed on Israel, and it is hardly reasonable to expect Israel to be fair in determining the nature and amount of the compensation. This can only be done as a result of internationalization of this question, for which, see below.

I object on principle of including mention of the flight of Jews from Arab lands within this document. The flight of Jews from Arab lands is not the affair of the Palestinians, and they are under no obligation to mention this in connection with the Palestinian refugees, Arab and Jewish, internal and external. I understand that there is no official connection – but the reference in the document  I find insulting insofar as it singles out the Palestinians.

Moreover, why are Palestinians expected to call for the return of Jews, if possible, to their native lands, but they are not expected to call for the return of their own refugees to their own land, if possible, in the same document?

9. The international dimension.

Under the present circumstances, the notion that Israel will allow any matter of internationalization strikes me as odd. If this is put in there in order to sweeten the bill, it will clearly be rejected. But of course, Israel will reject everything.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Operation Protective Edge and the Israel Defense Forces Testimonies

Several days ago, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which takes testimonies from IDF soldiers, published a booklet of over sixty testimonies of soldiers involved in Operation “Protective Edge”, the Gaza Op of last summer. The report has been overshadowed by other news from Israel, and aside from a long (and good) report in the Washington Post and some other major newspapers, and a fine opinion piece by Elisheva Goldberg in the Forward, it has faded fairly quickly in the US news cycle. This indifference is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted its revelations of IDF war crimes in Occupation Cast Lead.

Part of this indifference is due to the fact that many of the testimonies describe policies and actions that were publicized widely  last summer. We had enough evidence last summer that Israel’s operation in Gaza intended not so much to stop Hamas rocket fire as to “mow the lawn”, i.e., to deplete Hamas arsenals, to punish Gaza collectively for its support of Hamas, to seek revenge for the humiliation of the IDF by Hamas fighters, and to show the Israeli public that the government was doing something after the kidnap/slaying of the three Israelis on the West Bank.  As the operation dragged on the harshness of the response increased. Israel had pretty much free rein to do what it wanted. Feeling humiliated by the kidnappings and the rockets, which it was unable to stop, it unleashed its fury.

Another part of the indifference is due to the fact that the world has become inured to these periodic eruptions.  Israel is neither condemned nor condoned; it is simply ignored. And Israel has also learned how to ignore these testimonies, barely taking the trouble to reply, unlike the testimonies that followed Cast Lead, which occasioned a huge push back from IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and the IDF. The IDF spokesperson can be counted on to repeat their talking points, whether it believes them or not. This time it repeated the mantra that the organization should have contacted it with the testimonies, and it turns out that Breaking the Silence did just that.

Nevertheless, the testimonies are extremely important for three reasons:

First, they are first-hand testimonies that will be of great use to future historians and unbiased observers.  Some people who are unfamiliar with Breaking the Silence assume that those who give testimony oppose the military’s operations. Of course, there are those. But just read the testimonies, and you will see that they include soldiers who justify what was done, or at least those who think that Israel could not have acted differently. These are extraordinarily detailed and moving testimonies. After the BtS’s publication of thousands of testimonies, not one has been shown to be fabricated or distorted.

Second, the testimonies show that the IDF’s  violations of the Laws of War were not uniform, that they changed in the course of the operation, depending upon a variety of circumstances. The idea that violations of the laws of war are inevitable in urban context is simply false.  Israel behaved badly, but at times it behaved much more worse than at others.  And with each operation in Gaza it sinks lower and lower into a moral morass – and sinking with it are the apologists for evil among the supporters of Israel.

Third, and most important, the number of testimonies testify  to a pattern of willful and deliberate reinterpretation of the Laws of War that weakens its two main principles: the principle of discrimination (i.e., distinguishing  between civilians and soldiers), and the principle of proportionality (i.e, making the force exercised proportionate to the legitimate military goal).  What is interesting about this reinterpretation is that it differs from the call to change the laws of war for the “war on terror”.  The adoption by the IDF of the Asa Kasher/Amos Yadlin theory that says minimum risk to our soldiers, increased risk for the enemy’s civilians, has nothing to do with asymmetric warfare; it basically says that wars are fought between peoples and not between armies, and hence, almost anything goes.

And, as pointed out by others, it works both ways. That is, if Israeli soldiers should be considered as civilians because they  are reservists, then Israelis civilians should be considered as soldiers for the same reasons.  That could justify Hamas kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians if they feel it necessary to free their soldiers – since the rule is “our soldiers trump your civilians”.

In the coming week I plan to make available some of these testimonies, which are much more powerful and eloquent than anything I could write.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Service Learning in Israel “Tikun Olam-Washing”?

Dr. Max Klau and Rabbi Sid Schwartz (a rabbi for whom I have enormous respect)  have written an article arguing that young progressive Jews that are alienated from Israel can become connected via service learning programs, like those run by an organization called Yahel.  These are programs that bring young people to Israel who do volunteer work with mizrahim, Ethiopians, Druze, etc.  According to the authors, the Yahel experience is

an experience that provides a realistic, complex and nuanced understanding of a country that is talked about largely in the abstract during polarized debates back on college campuses in the States. And along with that nuanced and complex understanding emerges a genuine sense of connection.

The authors follow the story of “Jennifer,” who was raised in a home that “equated Zionism with racism. Like many secular, progressive young  Americans, she spent her college years immersed in a campus culture that, at best, questioned the current policies of the state of Israel and, at worst, demonized the country as a pariah state.” But after working with Ethiopians in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon Le-Tziyyon, “Jennifer” feels much more connected to Israel

“Through her service, she is encountering issues of race, gender, economic justice, immigration, and  – of course – the conflict with Palestinians – as they are experienced every day in Ramat Eliyahu and beyond.”

Yes, she is – and that is the problem. Because in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon, she will never observe the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli control. She will not encounter Palestinians, except in terms of the “conflict”. Jennifer will learn more about what it is to live under Occupation by attending campus meetings of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street U in the United States,  than she will in an Israeli town that gave thirty per cent of its vote to the Likud, and almost as many votes to the racist Yahad party as to Meretz (3%). She will be closer to the West Bank experience in Ann Arbor than she will be in Rishon.

A look at Yahel’s website shows that none of the programs work with Palestinian Israelis, much less Palestinians under occupation.  This is social justice “within the family”.  It is not social justice for the most underprivileged group of Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israelis.

Of course, working with all underprivileged is important, and I am the first to applaud Yahel and other programs for doing that.  I am not for dissing social justice programs of any sort; just as justice should be blind, so too social justice.

But service learning programs in Israel will not further young progressive students’ understanding of the core human rights/social justice issue in Israel today – the treatment of the Palestinians under Occupation. To me, it’s like telling college students  during the civil rights era, “Don’t demonize the South; go and tutor its poor white children.”

Israel is constantly thinking of way to engage liberal Jews in order to divert their attention from the elephant in  the room.  Progressive Jews have an obligation to see what is being done in their name in Areas B and C.  If they can’t visit Gaza, they should learn about the lives of Gazans, who remain under Israel’s effective control. 

Service learning should not be “tikun olam washing” – a way of connecting with progressives while sweeping under the carpet the central problem facing Israel – and its supporters today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It’s Time for Liberal Zionists to Support Some Sticks against the Netanyahu Government

Liberal Zionists don’t like the global BDS movement, but they also think that the Obama administration should get tough with the Netanyahu government. Josh Ruebner, the Policy Director of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, wrote a good piece in The Hill which shows some of the concrete steps the Obama administration can take if it is serious about is reassessment.

1. Clog the arms pipeline. Even though Congress will appropriate more military aid for Israel in this year's budget, there is a myriad of ways in which the Defense and State Departments can delay, if not completely suspend, the signing of contracts and the actual delivery of weapons.

2. Report on Israel's violations of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Under the AECA, countries receiving U.S. military aid can only use weapons for legitimate self-defense and internal security. Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — last summer, oftentimes with U.S. weapons such as F-16 fighter jets and Hellfire missiles. The Obama administration should send a report to Congress documenting these human rights abuses and suspend future deliveries of specific weapons systems as outlined in the AECA.

3. Sanction Israel under the "Leahy Law." Under the Leahy Law, specific units of militaries which commit human rights abuses are ineligible to receive U.S. training and weapons. In addition, individuals who commit human rights abuses are denied U.S. visas. While there is some evidence that high-ranking Israeli military officials have recently been denied U.S. visas, the State Department's reporting on the implementation of Leahy Law sanctions is opaque. More extensive and public sanctioning of Israel under this law is warranted.

4. Declare Israeli settlements a national emergency. Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has broad and unilateral powers to declare an emergency in response to a foreign policy crisis. By designating Israeli settlements as an emergency, the Obama administration could regulate, or even prohibit, any transaction in foreign exchange that will directly or indirectly contribute to the expansion of Israeli settlements.

5. Shut down "charitable" funding of Israeli settlements. Dozens of organizations currently recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501(c)(3) nonprofits funnel tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements every year. There is nothing charitable about dispossessing Palestinians from their land. IRS guidelines do not allow for the funding of illegal activities, which Israeli settlements are according to U.S. policy and international law.

Ruebner, adds, “after more than six years of offering Israel more and more carrots only to be repeatedly snubbed, it is long overdue for the Obama administration to brandish the proverbial stick.”

Now it seems to me that liberal Zionists who want to preserve the State of Israel as “Jewish and democratic” should be interested in supporting some of these methods, none of which would hurt Israel in the manner that  serious state sanctions would. They would certainly be more effective  than the boutique tokenism of not buying Hebron wines from merchants on the Upper West Side.

Can some of our prominent liberal Zionists, academicians who claim to be in favor of a Third Way, who don’t like what they (wrongly) see is a one-state bias of the global BDS movement, articulate ways to pressure Israel? Or will we be witness to even more liberal Zionist handwringing, teeth-gnashing, and liberal pieties about an illusionary “peace process”?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hillel’s Betrayal of Its Own Principles: Targeting Jewish Students at Swarthmore

In 1992, Bnai Brith International Corporation registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office the name “Hillel” to designate “association services; namely, promoting the interests of members of the Jewish religion through religious, career and vocational counseling programs, sporting events and social programs, and by providing information on issues concerning human rights and inter-faith relations.”

Twenty-three years later, the Swarthmore College Hillel, which has declared itself an Open Hillel because it won’t accept Hillel International’s political guidelines on Israel,  is sponsoring a program with Jewish civil rights veterans who criticize Israel’s human rights record called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversations with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.”  In response, International Hillel’s legal counsel has cautioned Swarthmore that it will take action to protect its trademark if the program is under the Hillel name. As a result, the Swarthmore Hillel is being forced to change its name. Read about it here.

International Hillel has misrepresented Open Hillel as a group that promotes an anti-Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) agenda. In fact, Open Hillel only wishes to give a forum to speakers who do not pass the International Hillel Israel loyalty test. As an organization it doesn’t itself promote BDS, much less an anti-Israel agenda.  Just go to their website and see for yourself.

The evolution of  Hillel  from an organization that, inter alia, provides information on human rights to Jewish students,  to an organization that suppresses such information when it comes to Israel,  has been well-told by John Judis in the New Republic.

Hillel’s stance toward Israel began to change in 2002 in response to donor generosity and the onset of the Second Intifada. That year, using a donation from the Schusterman Foundation, a significant funder of AIPAC and of the campus watchdog David Project, Hillel started the Israel on Campus Coalition. Its motto was “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” In 2010, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Wayne Firestone, a suburban D.C. lawyer, became the head of Hillel, and instituted explicit political guidelines for Hillel chapters to follow in sponsoring speakers and partnering with organizations, which included co-sponsoring events and allowing events to be held in Hillel buildings.

Former presidents of Hillel International like Richard Joel and Avraham Infeld were no less pro-Israel than Mr. Firestone and current president Eric Fingerhut,  but a lot more sensitive to different constituencies within the Jewish community.  Mr. Firestone and Mr. Fingerhut tend to identify being Jewish with being pro-Israel (Mr. Fingerhut is described in his official Hillel bio as “an active member of Ohio’s Jewish and pro-Israel community,” as if the two are coextensive). For some pro-Israel Jews,  to wish to boycott or place sanctions on Israel in order to stop Israel’s human rights abuses is tantamount to anti-Semitism and has no place at Hillel.

Recently, Mr. Fingerhut cancelled his appearance at the J Street conference because a Palestinian speaker was on the program.  The message to students: listening to representative Palestinian spokespeople is against the spirit of Hillel. (For the response of Benjy Cannon, the President of J Street U National Board, see here.  Full disclosure: Benjy was my student, and I am the faculty advisor for J Street U at UMD.)

And what are Jewish students to make of this? Even if you are deeply opposed to the BDS movement, does it make any sense in the world to throw Jewish critics of the policies of Israel – not of this or that Israeli government, but of the state  – out of Hillel, or to demand that they keep their mouths shut in order to enter Hillel?  Who is International Hillel  to decide who is a Jew and what is a legitimate Jewish opinion? If Maryland Hillel, one of the best Hillels in the country, invites the Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, a former Hillel board member and donor, to speak – will it be sued by International Hillel for trademark infringement? Ribono shel olam, have we come to this?

In a letter to Swarthmore Open Hillel’s Joshua Wolfsun, Eric Fingerhut wrote, “Rabbi Hillel is perhaps more famous for his saying in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What Mr. Fingerhut perhaps does not know is that  Hillel’s saying immediately continues “And when I am for myself, what am I?” Am I an egoist only looking out for my own tribe? Or am I a mentsh, who looks out for the welfare of all human beings created in the image of God. After all, when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said,

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

That is Hillel’s most famous statement, the Golden Rule, the  foundational statement for the very human rights discussion that Swarthmore Open Hillel wants to have. And  International Hillel sees this human rights discussion  as  contrary to Hillel’s mission! It is the very essence of Hillel’s mission.